Cellists have rarely made a dent within the heavy metal world aside of being background players for darker acts. The few who participated on those records get far less recognition than they truly deserve and create some amazing sounding music.
Then there is Allison Chesley aka Helen Money, a classically trained cellist who has drawn much attention for her work over the years in both the indie rock circles as well as the experimental rock and metal circles. She has released her third record titled Arriving Angels and continues to push the boundaries of dark, experimental music.
Chesley recently completed a show performing with Neurosis in Santa Ana, CA at the Observatory, where she performed her own set as well as with Neurosis. “It was one of the best shows I’ve played. It was kind of a perfect show. It was me, YOB; B!last, this punk band from Santa Cruz who haven’t played together in a while; and Neurosis. It was at a good venue and the crowd was great.”
She credits her introduction to Neurosis to Steve Albini, someone she calls her friend and hero. Plus he also produced her records as well. “I did some stuff with Shellac. I forgot about that. I thought about them because of Steve Albini. Steve got me in touch with Jason. Jason Roeder was my connection to these dudes. He introduced my music to both of those guys. They dug it and that’s how it happened.”
Chesley’s resume is quite extensive and impressive. Classically trained since the age of eight, she moved from her hometown of Los Angeles to Chicago to attend Northwestern University, where she earned a Master’s Degree in Cello Performance. “I started cello when I was eight. I did classical through college and then in my twenties I discovered rock music. My brother and sister were way into music and he turned me onto The Who. Then I started going out to the clubs and way into listening to rock music.”
“But I never thought I’d play cello. I liked it. Then I decided at some point I wanted to go back to grad school. I went to Northwestern and that’s where I met Jason. All the way until that time when I played with Jason I was practicing and playing Bach. I would say I have good technique is because I played classical. I’m glad I did. I’ve got a strong foundation so I could do whatever I want. I don’t really play much classical now. I mostly do my own thing but that’s where I came from.”
Her experience from that era introduced her to many people who inspired her music she is now creating in Helen Money. “I would say it is a logical progression because before I was playing in Verbow, I was playing with Jason Narducy, who is now playing (bass) with Bob Mould and Superchunk. When Jason and I got together, it was because we were big fans of The Who and we were also big fans of Bob Mould. Jason was doing some solo stuff and he was covering Bob’s material from Workbook. We got together and realized we wanted to start playing together. The two of us recorded a record and then we had some other songs, and Bob offered to produce it. That’s when Verbow started.”
“We were always around music that was dark and heavy. I feel what I’m doing now still has some that in it. Even the bands I’m playing in, even Neurosis and Sleep, they’re playing stuff that’s dark and dissonant but it’s got some structure to it. It’s not avant-garde or experimental. It goes back to song structure. Neurosis incorporated song structure and composition into this dark metal sound. I feel my music does too. I don’t think I’m avant-garde. I feel I play songs that are really dark.”
Her latest album Arriving Angels took the next logical step forward by adding drums to her dark cello sound that she is known for. Drums are not something many cello players incorporate into their music but she worked in that aspect well. “I felt like when I was writing this last record I was hearing another texture and drums just felt very logical. I feel what I do is very rhythmic and percussive in a way. I think the drums and the cello sound great together. With my boyfriend he created some drum patterns and I screwed around with them. I had these drum loops with a few songs. When it came to recording, I wanted a live drummer to play it. I was talking with Steve Albini because I knew I wanted to record with him, and he suggested Jason [Roeder]. Jason had seen me play in Petaluma, CA once back when I was promoting my first record, like in 2007. He knew my music. He was a fan. I had these loops already and particularly on ‘Radio Recorders’, it was ridiculously fast. He came up with recording with the loop that was already there. He said one of the Killing Joke records, Dave Grohl does that. Some of the stuff like on ‘Schrapnel’ I think it’s just Jason. On the other two, it was a combination of Jason and the loop me and Mike [Friedman] came up with.”
Outside of her Helen Money material, Chesley has quite the extensive resume of acts she has recorded with. Some of the people she has recorded with include Broken Social Scene, MONO, Poi Dog Pondering and Chris Connolly & The Bells.
One of her bigger credits includes Anthrax’s Worship Music (Megaforce), with whom she played cello on. “I recorded on Worship Music on two or three songs. That was when I was still living in Chicago. Charlie [Benante] the drummer got my name from the guy who was engineering the record. I went over to his house and played on a few of the tracks. It makes sense. If you’ve got a cello playing eighth notes it sounds cool with the electric bass. The cello sounds rhythmic and dark. It didn’t sound too left field for me. Russian Circles has strings and I played on that one, and MONO. It didn’t sound too unusual to me. It was an honor. I was kind of shocked. It was fun and Charlie had specific ideas. I think it turned out really good.”
She also recorded with Disturbed on their 2002 release Believe. “Yes I did. Maybe it was when I was still playing with Verbow. I can’t remember the record I came in and played on one song. It was kind of a ballad. It was through a guy who was assistant engineering that album. He asked me to come in and play.”
Lastly, with her highest of praises of Albini, the question of whether future music or a project with him would ever happen came up during the interview. While he is quite the busy person either producing or creating his own music, Chesley did entertain the idea.
“Oh I’d love to play with Steve. He’s one of my favorite guitarists. He’s got such a great sound. He’s a wonderful person too. I haven’t even thought about asking him. Even though he’s a friend he’s also a hero in a way. It hadn’t occurred to me yet. He’s pretty busy. He’s got his studio and his band.”